With a dragon’s palette
drawing your gaze from the vast
that weighs each branch
and sifts like dust
as you veer towards it
through the smoke of your breath
drawn from this season
of offering and trial
to freeze like ash in your wake
yet you find in arriving
but a burning
or the dragon’s
released in a winter
Behind these poems, there is a story — an encounter with a moose, or a generous tree. At times I’ve wished to share these backstories, and the curiosities they inspire.
But I’m hesitant, not wanting to influence the reader-poem relationship. I’ve come to see that interaction as an intimate and personal thing. When a poem is delivered well, it becomes yours. An effective poet is a skilled messenger.
Yet that poet can also be a guide. The challenge is to share the story, while still protecting the space in which poems work their magic.
So that is my goal in offering these short essay/poem pairings. I hope to pick my way between too little and too much, offering a glimpse of what wants to rush through — so it might commune, independently, with you.
In this poem, that rushing took the form of a fiery winter light. It surprised me out of a mind loop, as the wilds so often do. They are consistent in that way, receiving us in whatever state we arrive — without coddling, without asking us to change or be what we are not. Because of this, the wilds are my perfect crucible. They act as both a mirror for my human foibles and a window to another way of being. It is a kind of mercy, this immutable, unaffected generosity. When I allow it to astonish me, everything I thought I knew becomes a question.
The story behind this poem is a simple one: I went out for a walk in a terrible mood last week. It was cold, the afternoon light was fading, and from what I could see — through the frosted gap between hat and balaclava — the whole world seemed to be steeped in bruise-colored shadows.
As I rounded a bend, flames flashed between the hemlocks. Startled, I stumbled off the tramp-packed trail and into the soft snow. From that awkward seat I took a closer look and realized that the woods were not, in fact, on fire. The sun, on its way into a glowing sunset, was sending its slanty shafts of light through the branches like dragon’s breath. Every color of ember, spark and flame settled in patches so bright I squinted at them, mole-like. It was only then that I recognized how dark the forest had been for me and, equally, how little I had seen of it.
A few steps through the drifts, and I was reaching into a shaft of that light, watching my faded tan mitten become tangerine, saffron, persimmon. Suddenly everything was leaping with color, even if untouched by the light. For several breaths I just stood there, marveling at the transformation around me.
Then, I was corrected. In a “pay attention” moment that felt hushed and vivid, the sun shifted behind a trunk. The forest was cast back into shadows. Without thinking about it, I stepped sideways, and the sun reemerged, winking and beaming. I laughed — and acquiesced: I was the one who had been transformed. Winking back at the light, I murmured my gratitude and turned for home, the beginnings of a poem dancing beside me.